King Philanthropies’ Top Themes of 2017

Investing in people

Near the end of 2017, an African entrepreneur named Strive Masiyiwa published a post on his Facebook page that focused on a single initiative of King Philanthropies—yet, in doing so, he spoke to the aspirations that drove all of the work that our organization pursued in its first full year of operation.

Masiyiwa is executive chairman and founder of the Econet Group, a telecommunications company that has operations and investments in more than 15 countries. His post was about the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, better known as Seed. Founded at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2012, Seed draws on our financial support and on the academic resources of Stanford University to reduce poverty by promoting entrepreneurship and job creation.

While on a learning tour that included a stop at Stanford, Masiyiwa discovered Seed and heard about its fast-expanding presence in Africa and, more recently, in India. “I was just blown away, guys!” he wrote to his followers on Facebook. About the Seed curriculum, he commented: “This is exactly what we need to help small and medium-sized business grow.”

We were “blown away” by the response that Masiyiwa received. He published his post on December 12. By early 2018, more than 1.8 million people had flagged the post with a “Like,” “Love,” or “Wow” symbol; more than 1,600 Facebook users had shared the post; and the number of comments on it had topped 3,000.

“I want to meet this couple,” Masiyiwa wrote in his post. And we were pleased to meet him during his visit to Stanford. Masiyiwa, as we have learned, has pursued an impressive career in the private sector, and—along with his wife, Tsitsi Masiyiwa—he has made equally impressive contributions to philanthropy. His enthusiasm for Seed reinforced our faith in the approach that we’ve taken not only with that initiative but also with other investments that we’ve made under the banner of King Philanthropies.

In his post, Masiyiwa suggested that our gift to found Seed originated in a “love of humanity.” That remark rings true. Underlying all of our efforts at King Philanthropies is a belief in the power of investing in people and then leveraging the connections that emerge between them. As we explained in our 2016 letter, our vision for confronting extreme poverty depends in part on embracing a new math: 1 + 1 = 3. The best way to generate outsized impact, in other words, is to foster collaborative relationships between talented people and between high-performance organizations.

Building and deepening relationships, particularly with grantees and other partners, was a hallmark of our work at King Philanthropies during 2017. Here are a few highlights from this past year.

An essential initiative

Over the course of 2017, we oversaw continued development of our newest and in some ways most ambitious initiative. King Essentials—which we initially labeled the Food, Nutrition, and Rural Livelihoods initiative—is a grantmaking effort that incorporates both a rigorous strategy for addressing extreme poverty and a carefully designed model for structuring our support for grantees.

King Essentials is designed to identify and fund proven interventions that address basic human needs. To develop the initiative, our team undertook an extensive due diligence process that involved analyzing a wide variety of approaches. In the initial phase of King Essentials, our primary focus has been on interventions that reduce malnutrition and food insecurity—particularly among women and young children in rural areas—or that improve conditions for those who depend on rural livelihoods.

Photo (clockwise from upper left): Proximity Designs, Last Mile Health, Proximity Designs, Last Mile Health

For this initiative, we have adopted a particular grantmaking model. First we identify high-performance organizations that are ready to undertake proven interventions that align with our criteria for King Essentials. Then we commit to funding those organizations through multi-year grants that are generous enough to enable substantial work. Our goal in doing so is to ensure that grantees will be able to generate measurable results. In addition, we make grants to multiple organizations for work in a single country, in part so that these organizations can pursue opportunities for collaboration.

By the end of the year, we had awarded King Essentials grants to several nonprofits that combine high levels of strategic leadership with established records of conducting proven interventions in countries marked by extreme poverty. In 2018, our team will expand the reach of King Essentials and deepen our collaborative work with these and other grantees.

A graduation to remember

In June, we attended the commencement ceremony at Dartmouth College and witnessed two students become the first participants in the King Scholar Leadership Program to graduate from the college. Marc Sepama, from Burkina Faso, and Theo Wilson, from Jamaica, exemplify the promise of this program. Marc and Theo both earned bachelor’s degrees in economics, and we are eager to see how each of them will use their Dartmouth education to build a productive career.

Photo: Dartmouth College

We were also thrilled to watch our granddaughter, Jessica King Fredel, graduate from Dartmouth alongside Marc and Theo. At the same ceremony, Dartmouth bestowed on each of us an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters. As we accepted our degrees from President Phil Hanlon, we felt enormous pride in being recognized in this way.

Meanwhile, just as the first cohort of King Scholars at Dartmouth were completing their senior year, the initial cohort of King-Morgridge Scholars were preparing to begin their studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the fall, six students from countries such as Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe matriculated at the university. Joining us in funding this program are John and Tashia Morgridge. The Morgridges are Bay Area philanthropists who share our commitment to supporting international students.

Another scholarship program that we support also took a big step forward. In 2017, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program at Stanford University began recruiting its first cohort of students. This program will provide graduate-level education to promising young leaders from all over the world, and our investment will fund participants from economically less developed countries. (In addition, it will fund the King Global Leadership Program, a training curriculum in which all Knight-Hennessy Scholars will participate.) That first cohort of scholarship recipients will arrive at Stanford in the fall of 2018.

A transformative launch

In September, we traveled to India to attend the inaugural festivities of a new center for the Seed Transformation Program (STP). Located in Chennai, the center is based at the corporate campus of Infosys, one of India’s leading technology companies, and it serves participants in the program from all parts of the country. The launch of this program follows the establishment of STP centers in two African countries—one in Accra, Ghana (2013), and one in Nairobi, Kenya (2016). This year, more than 150 companies will take part in the program in one of these three locations.

Photo: Stanford Seed

Joining us in India was a team from Stanford that included Jonathan Levin, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Jesper Sørensen, faculty director of Seed. Like them, we were heartened by the remarkable sense of excitement and the keen interest in entrepreneurship among the Indians we met in Chennai. These businesspeople fully embodied our vision for reducing poverty by accelerating job creation, and they were clearly ready to take advantage of what STP can offer them.

STP, a core element of Seed, is a yearlong program that gives leaders of small and medium-sized companies the training that they need to expand their businesses. Anchoring the program are four intensive, weeklong sessions where CEOs learn directly from Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty members. In between those sessions, specially trained local facilitators work in the field with each company’s management team. Participants also have access to coaching and networking opportunities. For its first year of operation, Seed in India selected 45 companies—out of 230 applicants—to take part in STP. These companies represent a broad cross-section of industries, including retail, energy, health care, and financial services.

After our stay in Chennai, we traveled to other cities in India, including Delhi, and met with social sector leaders who are doing high-impact work. This trip was our first visit to India, and it gave us a chance to see firsthand the tremendous potential that exists in that country for achieving impact.

A voice for impact

In November, we celebrated the publication of a new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. The co-authors of the book are two leaders of King Philanthropies—Kim Starkey Jonker, president and CEO, and William F. (Bill) Meehan III, independent board member and special advisor—and we regard Engine of Impact as a critical initiative of the organization. Here’s why: The vision of high-impact performance that Kim and Bill set forth in their book aligns closely with our vision of how best to deploy philanthropic resources. In our 2016 letter, we outlined “three cornerstones” that we use to structure our giving: focus, collaboration, and results. Engine of Impact, we believe, is a very user-friendly (and reader-friendly!) guide to following those cornerstone principles.

Photo: Robert King

By working with Kim and Bill to spread the insights and lessons of the book to the entire nonprofit sector, we aim to promote broad adoption of “strategic leadership,” as the authors call their model of nonprofit excellence. Strategic leadership, according to Kim and Bill, encompasses seven essential components—seven areas of performance (from mission and strategy to funding and board governance) in which nonprofits must strive to excel. We share this vision for the sector, and we think that funders also have much to learn from the book. In particular, we hope to see more donors base their funding decisions less on impulse than on impact, less on received ideas than on evidence.

Alongside the book, Kim and Bill have developed other resources to build awareness of the principles of strategic leadership. They produced a report on the Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector—a study that they conducted to illuminate areas of performance in which social sector organizations either excel or (all too often) fall short. A second resource is the Engine of Impact Diagnostic, a tool that enables nonprofit stakeholders to evaluate how their organization fares in each element of strategic leadership. These and other resources are available on the Engine of Impact website.


The roots of our current philanthropic work go back a long way. As we noted in our 2016 letter, this work draws much of its inspiration from the experience of hosting dozens of international students in our home over the course of five decades. That experience enlarged our view of the world—and our understanding of how we can help to change it.

In another sense, though, we are just getting started. Under the leadership of Kim Jonker, King Philanthropies in 2017 laid the groundwork for making significant progress in 2018 and beyond. Kim is assembling a small but highly capable team to advance her and our vision, and this team is moving ambitiously on multiple fronts. In the year to come, King Philanthropies will expand the King Essentials initiative, support the growing ranks of entrepreneurs who take part in Seed, and build on the strong foundation that we have created for the King Scholars and Knight-Hennessy Scholars programs. We will also continue to promote the principles espoused in Engine of Impact.

Despite the high ambitions that we have for King Philanthropies, we also feel great humility in the face of the challenge posed by extreme poverty. The scale of need in this area is immense, and we know that we cannot achieve our goals for impact entirely on our own. So as we expand our work, we hope that others in the social sector will join us in pursuing high-impact efforts to invest in people.

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